December 15, 2014
It has been a good long time—70-plus years—since my last encounter with the NYPD. My namesake grandfather had his grocery store on West 46th between 9th and 10th. I spent my summers and school vacations with him opening the store at 6 am after stopping first at the Fulton Street markets. Home was in Brooklyn, and the daily drive over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan remains a vivid memory. At the market we’d load up with fresh fruits, vegetables and cheese. Each vendor would offer a slice or a piece of whatever they were selling—it was the original walking breakfast. We’d next drive through the streets, just awakening with activity, to the store. My first job was to sweep the sawdust from the floor and replace it with fresh. Then into the front window to sweep up bread crumbs and put down fresh white butcher paper before the bread man arrived. Next began the parade of eponymous truck drivers whose names were Mr. Ballantine, Mr. Borden, Mr. Schlitz, and so on.
One of the morning tasks was to create the display of fruits and vegetables in front of the store’s window. Grandpa did this with care and a bit of artistic flair—it was my grandfather’s art actually—and he was quite proud of it. I remember people stopping by to chat, especially the old Sicilian ladies in black, of course, squeezing everything for freshness, including me. West 46th was a neighborhood teeming with interesting characters, most of whom stopped to exchange greetings and a few words. At noon the store would fill with dock-workers in for their hero “sangwitches,” to be washed down with a quart of beer. It was a wonderful world of characters and personalities for me to have grown up in; these are all my fondest memories, which I treasure to this day.
Sadly, it wasn’t all thus. Every day, into our world would swagger the beat cop, twirling his night-stick, walking usually from east to west on our side of the street. Invariably the cop would stop in front of the fruit display, select a gem of an apple, peach, or pear, toss it up, catch it, and walk off without a word. Notice I didn’t include pay for it. In those days most cops’ names began with an “O” as in O’Toole, O’Reilly, O’Neil and so on. I was puzzled, why doesn’t this guy have to pay like everyone else? Grandpa wouldn’t say a word but would make a silent gesture drawing his fingers under his chin. You get the picture. We were the “other” then and silence was the safest response.
There have always been “others” in every era, and every culture treated dismissively and with scarce if any respect. In the U.S., blacks have been treated as others since long before the so-called “Revolution” of white landowners and businessmen against their king. The Civil War “revolution” of Southern whites to preserve slavery didn’t resolve the matter either, nor did two world wars in which black Americans served equally and with valor but came home to the same racism they had left. Yes, the overt legal issues have mostly been resolved, but not the essential and foundational social, emotional or moral ones. Racism was and continues to be deeply embedded in the society, as are prejudices against Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Hispanics, foreigners of any kind—in short “others”. And, one has to ask, why does it have to be this way?
So now I’m in New Mexico reading the news on the Internet when I see the cop who choked Eric Garner was named Pantaleo, and what struck me immediately was that his name ends in “O.” Back in the day the racist names began with “O.” Is this progress? Does Pantaleo know how Italians were treated 70 years ago? Have we not progressed as a society since the 1940s, or are we just better at pretending we have? The 1948 Kerner Commission report unequivocally stated that racism was then pervasive and as American as apple pie, and now, 66 years later, it’s clear not much has changed, except a few more minorities have been added to the “other” list. The newly elected Republican majority in Congress seems full bent on harassing and embarrassing our black president to the extent of openly discussing denying him a Congressional venue for his State of the Union address. Armed militias are stationing themselves along the U.S.- Mexican border, posing for group photos holding all manner of firearms; they are there to prevent children from entering the country. Isn’t this depravity?
Inequality and racism have been the evil twins hovering above every civilization seeking its humanity. Time and again people have struggled to address this reality—“Liberté, egalité, fraternité”—people seeking truth, justice, equality, freedom and dignity. These are the qualities of life that define what we wish humanity and thus our societies to consist of. Racism is simply another face of inequality, another facet of injustice, a denial of liberty that chains both racists and their victims to incivility, hatred and dysfunctional society. In the absence of truth, none of the problems of inequality, injustice or racism can ever be resolved. So it is that the truth must be told, inequality exposed and racism condemned.
We must not accept that racism and inequality are facts of existence with no resolution. Nothing is gained by pretending to have a race-neutral or egalitarian society; regardless of John Boehner’s claims otherwise, we are not having truthful discourse about the matter. Truth number one: racial problems are not legal, they are moral. We have applied legalistic solutions for years and haven’t come close to approaching the underlying moral issues. I’ll submit that casting and discussing inequality and racism or even better “other-ism” as a moral question will take us further toward the truth. We need to begin now while there is still time. Racism and inequality are by far the most deadly enemies of American society. We cannot continue to impoverish entire classes of citizens while cutting taxes for the most wealthy. We cannot continue to criminalize feeding the poor and homelessness; these are truths—moral truths. Adam Smith long ago clearly spelled it out: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” Not even the fantasy of “American Exceptionalism” will save us from the inevitable—it didn’t save Ozymandias and it won’t save us.
Emanuele Corso’s essays on politics, education, and the social contract have been published at NMPolitics, Light of New Mexico, Grassroots Press, World News Trust, Nation of Change, and his own —siteseven.net. He taught Schools and Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he took his Ph.D. His B.S. was in Mathematics. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, where he served as a combat crew officer. He has been a member of both the Carpenters and Joiners and IATSE (theatrical) labor unions and is retired from IATSE. He is presently working on a book: Belief Systems and the Social Contract. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org